With the current diplomatic fray between the UK and Spain over the British enclave of Gibraltar, thoughts go back to the time when there was yet another enclave on the Strait of Gibraltar – Tangier, International Zone – and ties were much stronger between the two outposts.
And of course you can't talk enclaves without mentioning Ceuta, that bit of Spain on African soil, just across from Gibraltar. Now that their respective military or geo-strategic importance has withered, all three share a "free zone" or mercantilist attitude.
When Westerners first ventured south to Africa, their Orientalist travelogues often took them from Gibraltar to Tangier, the gateway to Morocco and the rest of North Africa. 19th century American travel writer Dr. Henry Field ("The Barbary Coast," 1893) wrote
… the sky was without a cloud, and the atmosphere so clear that we heard distinctly the guns of Gibraltar, though it was more than thirty miles away.
Today's background noise of bustling Tangier would probably drown out the cannon fire, and to get to Gibraltar directly from Tangier (perhaps a good idea if Spanish authorities continue their slowdown with border crossings), you have to trek some 30 km east to the port of Tangier Med, which has a couple of ferry crossings per week to Gibraltar.
We also might want to revisit the days of the heliograph. From "Our Mission to the Court of Morocco" (1881) by Captain Philip Trotter, 93rd Highlanders, from the British Minister's residence in Tangier:
Before sunset we tried from the roof of the house to communicate with the signal station at Gibraltar by means of the heliograph, but a slight haze rested upon the rock, and there were, unfortunately, no means of replying to us.
Gone are the days – celebrated in the 1953 film "Captain's Paradise" – when steamers linked "Tan-Gib" on a daily basis. Up to 1988, there were even direct "Gibair" Viscount flights across the Strait between the two cities.
Taxis to the airport and taxiing on the ground probably took three times as long as the actual flight – reader Graeme Steel recalls "The flight publicized itself as the shortest international flight in the world – 15 minutes!."
John Blake, who grew up at the Legation in the Thirties when his father Maxwell was the Minister of the Legation, remembers "the particularly close ties between Tangier and Gib from the twenties to
the mid fifties. It was a time when Gib was Tangier's PX where the
diplomatic and consular corps could stock up with Pinch bottle whiskey
and Dom Perignon from Saccone & Speed at about $ 2.50 a bottle.
Unfortunately the Bland Line daily ferries between Gib and Tangier weren't destined to last forever."
Regular TALIMblog reader and former Tangier American Marge King remembers this from her postwar childhood in Tangier:
passenger ships stopped in Gibraltar in the 40s and 50s, hence we
traveled by way of Gib, with overnights at the Rock Hotel, every two
years for our summer vacation in the USA. Usually we crossed the straits
by ferry but I do recall one trip on Gibair. Thanks to a
longshoremen's strike in late '49 or '50 which delayed Christmas
packages, my Dad took the ferry to Gib several days before Christmas and returned by ferry with 2 fully assembled Raleigh
bicycles. I've always wondered how he got on and off the ferry and
through customs with those bikes!
During World War II, Legation-based OSS agents regularly nipped over to Gib to get a spot of demolition or sabotage training from their friends in the British Commandos or the SOE. That's where anthropologist Carleton Coon and his OSS buddy Gordon Browne developed their famous donkey turd mine to blow up German tank treads.
At the Legation, we have lots of images of Gibraltar, especially maps detailing the Rock, that bastion of British imperial might for three centuries. In fact, were it not for the row over concrete reefs and unhappy fishermen, we might be hearing more about the Tri-Centennial of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht and the beginnings of British rule.
Then again, maybe it's the anniversary that has prompted all the noise about artificial reefs and border controls.